[20] Penne with Beets, Beet Greens and Goat Cheese

Cover of Simply Organic, by Jesse Ziff Cool

This recipe came to light just before our third CSA delivery. We’d gotten an e-mail a couple of days beforehand with a “sneak peak” of what was going to be in our box, beets being on the list.

Well, as interested as I am in local foods, I have to admit that I don’t know much about when many types of produce are available when. Thus, that sneak peak seemed like a total life-saver, as it allowed me to plan a menu in advance of the CSA arriving, and do the supplemental grocery shopping done prior to the delivery.

“Seemed?”, I hear you ask. Well, unfortunately, yes. There were no beets for us in that particular box. Furthermore, as yet, we’re very much enjoying a number of salads, but most of the other vegetable produce has been rather skimpy. (Note, please, that I’m using “vegetable” in the common American usage. Thus, despite technically being fruits, zucchini and tomatoes are veggies. Fruit is similar, so on this blog, strawberries are a fruit. Thank you.)

We’ve gotten plenty of strawberries, though. Heck, as I type this, I’m contemplating saving it as a draft to see if there’s a delicious and fast strawberry dessert in my collection. The problem, of course, being that my experience that most “quick and delicious” strawberry recipes call for whipped cream, and I have none. Also, we’re moving in a couple of weeks and the stand-mixer is already, so I’m not making my own.

ANYWAY! Can anyone say, “Digression”?

Thus, we didn’t have this recipe that week, because we had no beets! When we did get beets, we got two of them. So we had to put off this recipe until we purchased supplemental beets and then managed to make it. Luckily, the ingredients can last awhile, except the beet greens I’d say.

Last night was the night! While, in fact, we waited for our fifth CSA delivery. Which did not contain more beets, but had SUN-GOLD TOMATOES. Bill probably won’t have a chance to eat any of those. 😉


h2. Ingredients

2 bunches medium beets with greens, ~8 beets (We had more than 8 beets, but our beets were also small.)
1/2 c olive oil

1 medium onion, thinly sliced

2 garlic cloves (This is literally what the book called for. We decided, based on reading the recipe, that probably we should mince it. So do that.)

3 tbsp balsamic vinegar

2 tbsp chopped fresh oregano (For both this and the one below, I used about a tsp of dried, since that’s what I had on hand.)

2 tbsp chopped fresh rosemary

1 lb whole wheat penne (I wanted to use up some pasta, so instead I used 1/2 lb of cavatappi and 1/2 lb of farfalle, white.)


Freshly ground black pepper

6 oz soft goat cheese, such as chèvre

3 oz grated Asiago or Parmesan cheese (As usual, we used Manchego.)

h2. Instuctions

Cut the greens off the beets and set aside. Trim the tops & bottoms of the beets and put into a large pot. Cover the beets with water, and bring to a simmer over medium-high heat. Cook between 20 minutes and an hour, depending on the size of your beets. When they are cooked, remove and run under cold water, slipping the skins off with your hands. Once skinned, cut as needed into bite-sized pieces.

While the beets are cooking, wash the greens thoroughly. Rib them as needed, and cut coarsely. Then start the pasta water. Cook the pasta according to the package directions, except stir the greens into the water for the last minute of cooking. Drain, reserving 1/2 c of the cooking water, and return the pasta to the pot.

While the pasta is cooking, warm the olive oil over medium heat and then add the onion & garlic. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions are soft but not caramelizing (about five minutes). Add the vinegar, oregano & rosemary, and cook for about one minute, stirring to break up any brown bits that form.

Add the beets & onion mixture to the pot with the pasta and toss gently to mix, then season with salt & pepper to taste. Drop a few tablespoons of the goat cheese at random on your serving platter, then sprinkle the platter with half the grated cheese. Spoon some of the reserved pasta water over the cheeses to warm them and make them somewhat saucy, then spoon the pasta over the melty cheeses and serve immediately.

h2. Cooking and Consumption Notes

h3. Cooking

On the whole, cooking this was not terribly challenging, which is good for a weeknight dinner where you’ve invited a buddy over for dinner and both your buddy and your partner had crappy days1. That said, I actually had what I suspect were fairly small beets , and they did take a surprisingly long time to soften. My beets cooked for about 30 minutes before becoming fork-tender. Unfortunately, I’d never cooked beets before this and didn’t know that fork-tender is not actually sufficiently tender to easily peel beets with one’s bare hands. I’m not sure what the consistency I’m looking for is, but more than that. If I hadn’t drained the beets, I might have tossed them back in the water to cook a little longer. However, the beets were totally soft enough to eat, the diners were headed my way, and so I said, “Screw it” and peeled them quickly with a paring knife. If you’re careful, it turns out this method is much faster and can be less wasteful, depending on how much you were struggling before.

The book did not tell me to discard the beet greens’ ribs. So, while the beets were boiling, I was blithely chopping up everything I’d cut from the beet tops. And then, at some point, my brain said, “Wait, we don’t cook the greens for all that long, do we? And these things are kind of tough. Double check where we cook the greens.” At which point I cussed a bit, and then much less blithely picked rib chunks out of the greens.

You will almost certainly not need all of the pasta water to make your “sauce”. However, it’s a pretty pink color, so you might use it all anyway to dye your pasta. No harm!

After the beets were drained, I wiped out the beet pan, then cooked the onion mixture in it. The recipe calls for a large skillet, but this method generates fewer dishes. I imagine that, to someone, the quality of the dish suffers, but most home cooks won’t notice any decrease in quality. Do as you will, but I imagine the smaller surface area of the saucepan will require more attention to the onions for even cooking. However, except for one awesome six-week class from “For the Love of Food”:http://www.fortheloveoffood.com/, I have no culinary training. And, honestly, I learned a lot in that class but I’m quite sure Chef Diane taught me a lot of stuff I forgot too2. Probably including why I shouldn’t have reused that pan, or why it was fine to do that, but I needed to watch it more, or it was just fine to do.

Oh, right, “brown bits”. Maybe you’d get those in a skillet, but I’m going to go out on a limb and say that with a freakin’ half cup of olive oil, that frond is highly unlikely to have formed. Furthermore, if you’re like me and have to use dried herbs because you forgot to get fresh ones and haven’t managed to grow any, toss them in with the onions to allow them a bit more cooking time. Really, they probably ought to have even more cooking time than that, but that’s the max amount of time you get for this part of the recipe.

h3. Consumption

Just for the record, this experiment has been awesome for making Jessie tell me I’ve made great food. Man, I appreciate that!

In all seriousness, this was pretty darn good. I misread the book as I was putting the pasta out to be served (and had two ravenous folks behind me, while being a ravenous folk myself!), so I put the pasta in first, then dotted & sprinkled with cheese and then put water over the cheese over the pasta3. I think this caused us to use most of the pasta water, and less would be used if the “sauce” was made in the right order.

The onions were DELICIOUS. I expect I’m going to keep that bit up my sleeve for other applications that need oil, balsamic & onion.

Do be careful, and remember you’re eating beets. Even your beet-stained pasta could potentially stain your tablecloth or pine table. I suggest a black table cloth for this meal. Or maybe a red cloth with small blue & black stripes. Not that I know anyone who has anything like that.

The recipe says this makes six servings. For once, the cookbook is correct. This fed Jessie, Bill and I a full, unsupplemented dinner with enough leftovers for one more meal each (though we’ll see if those meals need additions – and Jessie took hers for lunch the next day). A pound of uncooked pasta makes a LOT of cooked pasta.

Finally, I suggest looking for beets with plenty of leafy green part. Jessie RAVED about the greens; they were very good. However, they were also very few and tended to clump together once cooked. Best of luck with that last part!

fn1. “A crappy day”? I actually don’t know which would be more correct here.

fn2. If you live in or near Baltimore, the “How to Think Like a Chef” class was wonderful, and I recommend it. I’m sure her other classes are also awesome. I see she has an advanced “How to” class now, and I’m bummed to not be able to sign up. Go! Why are you still reading this when you could have clicked on the link and signed up?

fn3. Okay, Jessie actually did the cheese parts. I was busy finishing the last of the post-cooking, pre-dinner “clean as you go” while Bill was finishing making sure we all had drinks and plates and flatware.